Review: Lou Reed Butoh at March Music Moderne

A had-to-be-there recap, plus a post-show talkback with Seattle butoh dancer Joan Laage.

All butoh reviews operate on a had-to-be-there basis. If you didn’t see Seattle’s DAIPAN Butoh Collective do their site-specific performance set to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music at Three Friends Coffeeshop around midnight last Saturday….what can I say?

Something like, “The white-painted, deathmask-miming dancers moved slowly from here to there, with grotesque, meditative, transcendent energy and unpredictable tics…both interacting with and ignoring the crowd…both inhabiting and disembodying the space.” But, really, you had to be there.

The spectacle came courtesy of March Music Moderne, a 34-artist, two-week, citywide selection of both edgy and classical performances curated by music impresario Bob Priest. ArtsWatch’s contribution has been Oregon ComposersWatch (TaborSpace, Saturday, noon). At press time, there are still two days and several events left on the festival schedule.

Seattle Butoh dancer Joan Laage. Image by Kaoru Okumura.

Seattle Butoh dancer Joan Laage. Image by Kaoru Okumura.

Three Friends was packed with some obvious butoh or Lou Reed enthusiasts, hemmed in by a faction of late-coming doubters who instantly determined that this was weird and then had to decide how long they should stay. As I stood watching the dancers, distortion and fuzz ringing in my ears and drawing glitchy parallel lines inside my mind, I started to free-associate a list of adjectives into my notebook. I let the baristas peek at it after, and they seemed to enjoy my conflicted impressions:

Unsettling, startling, internal, grotesque, rapturous, bizarre, disfigured, larval, decrepit, infantile, corporeal, spastic, ecstatic, mutated, conjuring, suspenseful, solipsistic, reactive, provocative, abnormal, abysmal, confrontational, limbic, agonizing, existential, supernatural, taxing, exhausting, unceasing, incessant, overwhelming, overstimulating, slow, laborious, spectral, somnambulist, eerie, edgy, ghostly deadpan, resigned resolute, present, absent, intense, immersive, erratic, chaotic, humanoid, humble, ghoulish, glorious, profound, screeching, stoic, melodramatic, reverent, rapturous, ephemeral, eternal, impulsive, instinctive, graceful, ghastly neurotic, erotic, catatonic.

Once she’d gotten out of costume and ordered some tea, DAIPAN founder Joan Laage was kind enough to share some thoughts on this particular project, and more broadly, the form. I’ve talked extensively with local butoh mainstay Mizu Desierto, but this was my first chat with another practitioner. A few takeaways:

For this piece, Laage lifted inspirational images directly from particular Japanese prints. A facial expression she held much of the time—bizarre and quizzical, with a tilted head, squinched lips, and slightly crossed eyes—comes from an iconic print whose name she didn’t remember, but I could picture just by seeing her make the face. This approach differs from what I know of Desierto, who’s more inclined to imagine processes—e.g. a plant flowering, a child maturing—than specific still images.

Depending on whom you ask, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is the seminal masterpiece of the noise music genre, or it’s the artist’s middle finger to the music industry. The screeching, spontaneous, deconstructed double album rounded out a contract that Reed was rumored to want out of, and compared to his other work, it displays a potent angst and a lack of labor. Still, there’s something compelling in its rawness, and Laage considered it a great creative challenge.

Some people talk about butoh in a Star Wars-esque binary, certain that the form has “light” and “dark” sides. Though Laage has never so starkly defined it that way, she acknowledges what spawned this perspective: one of the form’s two main founders, Ono Kazuo, was a Christian who also valued Shinto lightness and a childlike affect. His contemporary Hijikata Tatsumi was more of a secular surrealist, who even drew some early inspiration from the Marquis De Sade.

Laage’s troupe had rehearsed their piece in the empty Three Friends space, perhaps not anticipating that the room would get full enough to actually interrupt their flow. In one moment that seemed particularly confrontational, the dancers surrounded a young couple and—as one barista put it—”popcorned” them by rapidly jumping up and down. Laage assured me that that was an accident of overcrowding. Still…when Lou Reed’s most aggressive album meets Japan’s most outre dance form, no one is safe.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    Thanx soooo much for this in-depth review of Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music with Butoh dancers.

    Of the 18 shows I was able to personally attend during MMM IV, this particular performance was my absolute standout favorite. I had big trouble falling asleep after this rivetingly intense show & my dreams were heavily populated by many unforgettable images & sounds from this seamless melding of music, dance & candlelight.

    I have invited the excruciatingly talented Butoh dancers Joan Laage, Sheri Brown & Alan Sutherland back for MMM V: 20-29 March 2015 to inhabit my/our waking & sleeping dreams once again . . .

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